New on DVD/Blu-ray: Real Steel (2011)

Dakota Goyo and Hugh Jackman in Real Steel (2011) Movie Image

I feel like I should start this review with something along the lines of, “Real Steel punches its way onto DVD!” Because, you know, the movie is about boxing. Robot boxing, yes, but still boxing, and thus, “punching” to start off the review would be all kinds of appropriate and awesome. But I’m not going to do that, because that would be lame and lazy, and as we all know, I’m neither of those things. Well, most of the time. Let’s just go with this: “Real Steel” is coming to DVD and Blu-ray January 24th, 2012 courtesy of Walt Disney Studio, so get your dukes up, kids! (Sorry.)

A gritty, white-knuckle, action ride set in the near-future, where the sport of boxing has gone hi-tech, Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback.

A precocious boy, his washed-up, has-been ne’er-do-well father, and a fighting robot salvaged from a junk heap. What’s not to like? As it turns out, Shawn Levy’s “Real Steel” is a surprisingly good movie underneath its not-so-subtle metal surface.

Make no mistake about it: what makes “Real Steel” go is not movie star Hugh Jackman, but young Dakota Goyo, who is rock-solid as the distrustful young boy suddenly thrust into the unwelcome arms of his wayward father. Jackman plays Charlie, a former boxing almost-was who, like the rest of the boxing world, has seen their sport turn from human boxers to robot boxers since, we’re told, humans just couldn’t go far enough for what the sport demanded. With his boxing career far, far behind him, Charlie scrapes a living going from one small-town to another, pitting his bang-up robots in illegal and county fair fights. When Charlie, and his put-upon son Max (Goyo) uncover thrown-away sparring boxing robot Atom at a junk heap (Charlie had brought the boy along to steal some parts from a salvage yard), father-and-son begin to bond as Atom rises through the robot boxing ranks.

Yes, you’ve seen this story before. Not just the whole “bad dad learns to love his son and vice versa” angle, but also the Underdog Sports Movie. Eventually, Charlie and Max get the opportunity to pit their dingy Atom against the world robot boxing champ, a seemingly unbeatable piece of hardware called Zeus. You know, Rocky versus Apollo Creed, all that. Nothing too original here, but hey, I guess there’s a reason this plotline has been used countless times before — it works, and audiences eat it up.

Dakota Goyo and Hugh Jackman in Real Steel (2011) Movie Image

“Real Steel” is as polished a movie as you’ll find. The CGI is outstanding, and yes, you’re just watching CG robots fighting most of the time, but the effects are so flawless that they never take you out of the action. The human elements are of course highly manipulative, but again, Jackman and Goyo are so good in their roles that you’ll likely not care and cheer for them anyway. Good supporting work by Evangeline Lilly (of “Lost” fame) as Charlie’s long-suffering girlfriend and Kevin Durand as a sleazy Texas fight promoter give character to the film beyond father and son. Bonus brownie points go to the script for electing not to make odious villains of Max’s legal guardians, his Aunt (Hope Davis) and her husband (James Rebhorn); it must have been so tempting to go the cartoony route with them, so hats off for not doing so.

“Real Steel” doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises, but if you’re looking for a good family film with some excellent robot action, you could do a heck of a lot worst. The movie is very heartfelt, with a great moment at the end when the son and the girlfriend sees the old Charlie return to form. That’s good stuff, right there.

The 2-disc combo pack comes with two discs containing a standard DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray features a “Ringside with Director Shawn Levy” function that allows you to watch the movie with Levy doing a full-length commentary. Levy is an affable fellow, so listening to him is not an entirely bad experience. I always prefer cast commentary, though, but that’s mostly because the cast tend to goof off a lot more than the director.

Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly in Real Steel (2011) Movie Image

You get four featurettes with the Blu-ray:

“Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story” (14 minutes) — A faux ESPN documentary leading up to the Big Fight between Atom and Zeus; pretty funny, especially the “interviews” with the film’s more sordid characters. Karl Yune as the douchey, uptight Tak Mashido is also hilarious.

“Making of Metal Valley” (14 minutes) — Behind-the-scenes look at the creation of and shooting in the robot salvage yard where Charlie and Max discover Atom. This is why Hollywood movies cost so much to make and take so long to shoot — because they build everything from scratch. Amusingly, Metal Valley is probably the LEAST convincing part of the film. Ironic, no?

“Building the Bots” (5 1/2 minutes) — Exactly what it sounds like — a look at the making of the fighting bots by the company that Stan Winston founded. The bots in the film are flawless, so well done, guys.

“Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman’s Champ” (6 minutes) — The guy who taught Hugh Jackman how to box? Sugar Ray Leonard. Here’s how he did it.

Other bonus features include some extended and deleted scenes featuring introductions by director Shawn Levy. There are also about two and a half minutes of blooper footage; highlights include Kevin Durand being completely goofy with what little screentime he has.

The standard DVD disc contains the blooper reel and the featurettes “Making of Metal Valley” and “Building the Bots”, along with the audio commentary by director Shawn Levy.

Buy “Real Steel” on DVD/Blu-ray tomorrow from Walt Disney Studios.

Real Steel (2011) Movie Blu-ray Cover